The world’s number one female tennis player, Simona Halep, shook the monkey off her back Saturday to win her first major singles championship in Paris at the French Open.
Court Philippe Chatrier was packed with fans from Romania. The little country’s biggest sports personality stood on the largest court in Europe, trying for a third time to win this coveted title. Before a ball was struck, cries of “See-mo-na, See-mo-na” reverberated.
“I wanted this trophy to be here in Paris,” Halep told fans after defeating American Sloane Stephens 3-6, 6-4, 6-1. Later, she told the press, “The trophy? It’s heavy and beautiful. It’s mine.”
During the final in Bucharest, hundreds of people crowded in front of a jumbotron television set up specifically to broadcast the match from Paris. They wanted to see their tennis heroine succeed. They wanted to stand together as a nation. Because of Halep, tennis has become the number one sport for Romanian girls.
NBC aired the match in the United States. Its sports division had to be giddy with the prospect that an American made the final and had a good chance to win her second Grand Slam title. Stephens was 6-0 in finals coming into the match. Those are good odds to sell to advertisers.
But here’s the rub… and it has to do with tennis as a whole: If you asked a statistically required number of American sports fans if they knew or ever heard of Simona Halep, most would say no. Pose the same question about Sloane Stephens, and a larger percentage would probably say yes, but not with any confidence. Serena Williams? Of course. Roger Federer? Yep.
Yet, how in the world could even casual viewers of tennis in America not know who is the number one player in the world?
The failure, of course, points to the top. Tennis is at stake, not the celebrity of a few players who draw the most attention. If tennis wants to grow into a true international game — which it thinks it is already; just look at all the tournaments staged worldwide — it needs to make changes at the top in the United States, especially with the commentators in the broadcasting booth calling big matches like this one on Saturday. These are the people who can educate — and should be educating — viewers at the optimal time of a tennis season: a Grand Slam final.
So far, though, NBC and ESPN, two behemoths in sports coverage, have fallen flat on their corporate faces in meeting that responsibility. NBC deserves sole responsibility for the French Open, since ESPN has no role in televising the event.
Take Saturday’s women’s final to illustrate this point. NBC’s regular broadcast team of John McEnroe, Mary Carillo and Ted Robinson guided viewers through the match. Their comments were, at times, astute. At times they used words and terms that would only make sense to a tennis aficionado. At other times, they were nothing more than a joke.
McEnroe repeatedly assigned “nerves” as the cause for virtually all errors and slips in concentration. The distinctive feature of McEnroe’s modern analysis (he was not this same commentator 20 years ago) is not necessarily that they are wrong (though they often are), but that they are simplistic and, worse, reflexive, without original thought.
“She seems a little tight,” he said, his refrain used time after time during the match, as one has come to expect from him. Here’s another well-oiled McEnroe comment: “She needs to put a little more on her serve, get some free points from that.”
Wow. Who knew?
Also this: “She’s hesitant at times to come to the net, but willing to go for it is the key.”
McEnroe was one of the best serve-and-volley players the game has ever witnessed. However, his generic comments only circle back to him and his experience when HE played in the 1980s. Repeatedly harping on his tried-and-true notions does nothing to expand the game and illustrate it accurately. It stays stuck in McEnroe-land and is a disservice to millions.
Fifteen years ago, soccer was — if not entirely nonexistent — a much more low-profile draw for sports fans in the United States. It didn’t get much television time and, if it did, people would see the men’s and women’s World Cups. Nothing wrong with that — the World Cup was an introduction to the best the sport has to offer.
Initially commentators seemed to speak down to the viewing audience. Broadcasters “dumbed down” the sport, eliminating the nuances well-known in countries outside the United States. (Think of baseball and basketball voice Dave O’Brien, a professional but not a student of soccer, disastrously fumbling his way through the 2006 World Cup in Germany for ESPN.)
However, soccer continued to grow in popularity. Names like David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Neymar popped up on ESPN’s Sports Center. Then in 2015 the U.S. Women’s Soccer team won the World Cup in Canada. Names like Hope Solo, Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd made the news.
These players became the celebrities who roped in viewers to enjoy a sport defined by agility, stamina, and international bonds. As a result, soccer expanded. It’s no longer a second-tier sport in America. Commentators have learned to talk with viewers as though the audience knows about its ins and outs. The broadcasters have become more educated and, as a result, have educated audiences.
BBC Sports announced on Twitter last week that Amazon will show 20 Premier League matches a season, starting in 2019, through various packages. It never would have taken that risk had soccer not penetrated a population hungry for this compelling sport.
Tennis could rise in prominence and exposure through the same plan.
“Watching sports is strange,” Louisa Thomas, a contributing writer at The New Yorker, wrote on Twitter Saturday. “You feel so invested in someone else’s dreams for so long … and then it happens. And you share in, and feel enlarged by, their joy. Congratulations Simona Halep and her team.”
Although Thomas sticks to top names in most of her tennis commentary, she is one of many in the print and online media who have contributed to the possibility of tennis. She perceives her readers as intelligent consumers of the sport. More than likely she doesn’t have an agenda to expand tennis, but nonetheless, she educates.
Over the last couple weeks of the French Open, The New York Times’ sports pages have highlighted players who don’t carry the celebrity pastiche: Diego Schwartzman of Argentina, who fought bravely in his loss to Rafael Nadal; Daria Kasatkina, the Russian tennis star who demolished the number-two seed and Danish headliner, Caroline Wozniacki. Sure it covered 10-time champion Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams’ return to Grand Slam competition and unfortunate withdrawal, and Novak Djokovic’s resurgence. It’s expected of that publication. However, the Times has also started to write about the lesser-known players, which adds to people’s enjoyment of tennis and contributes to its expansion.
Domestically, The New York Times reaches 9.3 million people a day, according to Statista. The paper’s readers are being introduced to and educated about a broader pool of players who challenge the big names on court, carry weight in tennis, and have much to offer tennis fans… if only they knew about them.
Tennis junkies know where to find their fixes. Tennis Channel is the one-stop shop for all things tennis in America, as its promotional plug tells audiences. There’s also live-streaming tennis through WTA TV and ATP Tennis TV. These viewers live for a sport they’ve learned intimately. They know that the essence of tennis is found in everything: in running, groundstrokes, overhead smashes, volleys, all within the confines of white lines that dictate technique and constrain split-second choices that later can come across as intuitive skills. What’s not to like and love?
Halep and Stephens’s long rallies Saturday left them digging and gasping for air, as they strung each other wide and wider and forced each other to show their best levels of athleticism. Millions watching from afar probably were left breathless. Just how in the world do these women do that point after point?
NBC executives should hire new voices, some who have a presence in the United States already but are more widely known outside the states. Take for example Rob Koenig, a former player and current ATP World Tour announcer. Here’s what he wrote about Halep’s strategy when she was struggling against Stephens: “Halep has gotta use the ‘back-behind’ play to Stephens. Sloane moves too well left and right to consistently go to the open court.”
Craig O’Shannessy, a contributor to The New York Times, wrote on Twitter, “[Sloane] has answers for everything. Halep needs to red line from here out. Stephens took her foot off the gas towards the end of the set and Simona almost came back. She’s always more aggressive from behind.”
Instead, listeners heard generalities and tired McEnroeisms like this: “Make this a real old-school clay court event, extent the point and get the error.”
NBC has to own this error for the French Open, but ESPN shares responsibility because it is happy to employ McEnroe at the other major tournaments where it has the broadcast rights.
Throw the bums out, as McEnroe might say — being a New Yorker — and let tennis re-evaluate the voices at the top. Bring in people like Koenig. Nick Lester, a familiar voice in Europe, has worked with Tennis Channel at Wimbledon, bringing fresh ideas and statistical relevance to viewers, presenting a whole new world of tennis. Chanda Rubin, former player and commentator now with Tennis Channel, leans on her pro experience to add interesting angles. Lindsay Davenport and Martina Navratilova should have been in that NBC booth on Saturday in Paris.
If tennis doesn’t want to take on the world, like soccer did, the status quo will march on in America… and the growth the sport says it wants will be nonexistent.
Here’s another area for improvement. On Wednesday Tennis Channel showed the first set of a best-of-five men’s quarterfinal match instead of the final set of a women’s quarterfinal between Halep and two-time major champion Angelique Kerber that had fans on their feet. Why? Because Nadal was on center court.
Devoted tennis fans hate those moves by broadcasters. It points to corporate agendas and advertisers’ demands. To break out of that cycle, Tennis Channel, NBC and ESPN have to educate their advertisers and get them on board the real tennis train, not the one driven by celebrity, clickbait, and non-risky choices. The audience numbers are there.
And stop elevating the “fake news” about “last American in Paris,” or start talking about why Americans have set sail. And what about women’s and men’s doubles competition, and also mixed doubles? More people in America play doubles than singles, a fact NBC and ESPN have to pass on to advertisers.
And, you, French Open staff: Fill the seats. During quarterfinal matches that featured Nadal, Juan Martin del Potro, Marin Cilic, and former French Open champion Garbine Muguruza, over half of the seats were empty. Imagine casual viewers tuning in to see that. It certainly doesn’t inspire them to watch. Why would they? If no one’s watching a major, then maybe something’s wrong with tennis, the casual fan might think. The major tournaments, not just American broadcasters, have a role to play in growing the sport across the globe.
Nothing is wrong with tennis, if it truly doesn’t want to grow. But that’s not we hear. USTA initiatives at grassroots levels counter the notion that growth is not the goal. The concept called “Tiny Tennis” grew from the idea that youngsters could learn to play using peanut-sized racquets and pressure-less tennis balls on scaled-down courts. These are the next generation of tennis consumers. They are smart and will have to be treated that way, or they’ll go in other directions.
Changes will force the sport to take hard looks at what’s important while balancing its need for corporate sponsorship, advertising income and steady relationships with broadcasters. But it could start with a change of the commentator guard in the in the NBC and ESPN booths.